GAINESVILLE – On any given day, this city is brimming with activity.
Its burgeoning population of about 127,000 includes more than 51,000 students attending the University of Florida, the nation’s eighth largest university. In the fall, as many as 90,000 football fans are apt to join the crowd in the university’s stadium.
Less obvious, though, are the people huddled in remote corners of parks, beneath highway overpasses and in deserted parking lots. Unable to afford a place to call home, they are scarcely able to enjoy the city’s sporting events, fine restaurants and Midtown music scene.
“Unfortunately, we have a fairly sizable population of homeless people in this city, including many families with young children,” said Rosemary Davis, a volunteer for homeless initiatives at Trinity UMC, Gainesville.
“These are good families who have fallen on hard times and lost their homes. It’s especially heartbreaking to see the children living out on the streets. They don’t understand why this has happened to them.”
Determined to help these families, Trinity joined other local houses of worship in 1998 to start a program targeting homelessness called the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Gainesville. In 2003, the organization changed its name to Family Promise.
Since 1986, 180 Family Promise branches in 41 states – including several in Florida – have helped more than 50,000 homeless and low-income families.
“We don’t just offer handouts,” said Davis, who has been involved in the Gainesville program since it started. “We take a practical approach to helping these families. Each branch is comprised of 13 faith institutions that agree to house homeless families at their places of worship four times a year.”
The host worship center arranges living quarters in its facility. While the children are cared for by volunteers, the adults work with counselors to obtain financial assistance, acquire transportation and find jobs.
“At Trinity, we set aside our Sunday school classrooms for the homeless families and everyone pitched in to make the rooms comfortable and provide breakfasts, dinners and sandwich makings for lunch,” Davis said. “It’s just a wonderful program and had a very high success rate.”
But with many of the city’s houses of worship experiencing growing pains, several members of the branch were no longer able to dedicate space for the homeless families. They dropped out, forcing Family Promise of Gainesville to close its doors in July 2014.
“You need at least 13 churches to make this work,” said Dr. Dan Johnson, senior pastor at Trinity for 21 years. “We got down to nine churches and just couldn’t keep the program going.”
But the homeless problem didn’t go away. The Homeless Coalition of Florida estimates there are 1,000 homeless people living in Gainesville and surrounding Alachua County at any given time. Thirty-five percent are women, and 27 percent are younger than 18. The county’s shelters provide only 350 beds.
“We realized we needed to find a way to revive Family Promise,” Johnson said.
Renewing the promise
“Along with other churches, we rolled up our sleeves, put members on the board of Family Promise and made a commitment to raise money and recruit additional churches,” the pastor said.
Family Promise of Gainesville needs prayers, donations and faith communities willing to provide shelter to homeless families on a rotating basis. Click here for information.
He said it wasn’t a hard sell for the 4,300 members of Trinity.
“Family Promise is one of the few outreach programs that take care of homeless children and their families,” he said. “It’s not just a Band-Aid. They have a really good track record. After a week or two, these families are able to get back on their feet.”
Florida Conference congregations joining Trinity in the effort to revive Family Promise are First UMC and Grace at Fort Clarke UMC, with Celebration UMC playing a supporting role. The Gainesville Methodist congregations are among 11 churches in the community that have committed to Family Promise.
However, the effort was still missing a key ingredient: funds.
“We raised some money through Spirit Nights at restaurants in the area, but we really needed a fundraiser that would give Family Promise a financial shot in the arm,” Davis said.
The answer was a bit quirky but fitting for an organization that provides beds for the homeless. The participating churches decided to stage the first Family Promise Bed Race on May 16 at the Santa Fe College track in Gainesville.
Teams of five people collected sponsorships and then constructed beds on wheels.
“We ended up with eight beds with teams of five, three from Trinity,” Davis said.
The rules called for one team member to ride on the bed while the other four pushed.
“Creativity was as important as speed,” said Davis. ”The teams wore costumes and decorated their beds.”
With Gainesville WKTK 98.5 radio host Storm Roberts serving as emcee, teams competed for awards for the fastest bed, funniest bed, most original design, People’s Choice and a merit award for fundraising.
“The Dads in Plaid team from the United Church of Gainesville was the overall winner,” Davis said. “They were dressed in plaid and built their bed like an aerodynamic race car, low in the front with big bicycle wheels on back, so it was very fast.”
The Grace team walked away with the award for original design. Promoting Imagine No Malaria, the United Methodist campaign to stamp out the deadly mosquito-borne virus in Africa, the team’s bed featured a jungle theme. Grace also won the fundraising award, bringing in $2,000.
Overall, the event raised $7,000 for Family Promise. Combined with other fundraisers this year, individual donations and grants, Family Promise hopes to reopen with $50,000 in its coffers.
“We were very pleased,” said Johnson, who rode on one of the beds dressed as the biblical figure, Joseph. “We raised a lot of money and had a good time.”
Family Promise plans to begin accepting homeless families in mid-July.
“We are now recruiting our final two host congregations,” said Adam Gurske, president of the Family Promise board of directors. “With our new executive director on board, we are ready to reopen.”
For more information, visit www.FamilyPromiseGVL.org.
– D'Ann Lawrence White is a freelance writer based in the Brandon area.